Another week, another MoviePass story. Gee, do you think that just maybe something’s not right with this group of grifters?

The latest is this: MoviePass’ new $9.95-for-three-movies-a-month model goes into effect today, and as of last week only 15% of the company’s 3 million users had opted into this new plan. That figure probably just went up considerably because, turns out, MoviePass is just going ahead and renewing people’s plans without their approval. Heck, it’s even auto-renewing those people who have already deleted their accounts.

Not surprisingly, this isn’t going over well, and now Helios & Matheson, MoviePass’ parent company, has somewhat quietly admitted it is currently facing a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of the hundreds if not thousands of angry investors. Oh, also, it just posted a quarterly loss of $126 million.

Meanwhile, this is what I see when I look at all of my nearby theaters in the app right now on Wednesday morning at 9:10 AM:

Either there’s been a national tragedy and all of the theaters have closed or MoviePass just ran out of money again.

So, other than all of that, things are going just swell for ole MoviePass these days.

This unfolding saga has always been far too juicy to resist. From the beginning, it’s been the story of just the latest group of digital disruptors taking aim at one of the last brick and mortar institutions, except in this case the disruptors proclaimed themselves to be the saviors, not the destroyers. Overall film attendance is flat. The millennials aren’t showing up. The old way of doing things is startling to look seriously old and dangerously naive about what will happen if something doesn’t change.

The solution: Netflix for movie theaters. From the guy who helped co-found Netflix, no less.

Earlier this year, I wrote a profile of MoviePass CEO Mitch Lowe and noted just how many of his strategies seemed to be mimicking everything he learned from Reed Hastings when he got in on Netflix’s ground floor two decades ago. I was skeptical of Lowe’s pollyannaish statements about his company’s assured growth and survival, but I also agreed with his general view of what ails moviegoing and was intrigued to see if a subscription model could truly work in the long term.

In the months since I wrote that, literally everything MoviePass has done, from constantly shifting membership terms to the scourge of surge pricing, just made things worse. Lowe is still out there, like a tech Sarah Sanders, looking at a burning world and saying everything is fine. But, the end is nigh. The stock closed at just $0.05 yesterday. Nasdaq is sure to delist them from the stock exchange soon. Such a process is mandatory when a company trades at less than a dollar for 30 straight days.

So, now seems like a good time to move further up the chain and look not at Mitch Lowe, but instead his bosses at Helios & Matheson, most notably Ted Farnsworth and board member Muralikrishna Gadiyaram. They, not surprisingly given how things have been going, are shady as fuck.

As per the Miami Herald:

  • Just four of the 50 companies Farnsworth has registered in the state of Florida over the last few decades are still active.
  • Notable among those failed companies is the Psychic Discovery Network, a call-in hotline for psychic advice which managed to gain an endorsement from La Toya Jackson. It eventually racked up at least 50 consumer complaints and was named by the Federal Trade Commission on “a list of abusive pay-per-call services.
  • Only three of Farnsworth’s 50 companies managed to go public, and of those three all of them “saw their value drop by 99 percent, below $1 per share in each case, within three years of being listed during Farnsworth’s tenure.” You can now add MoviePass to that list.
  • One such companies was XStream Beverage Network, which Farnsworth launched in 2001 and aggressively touted as a potential competitor to Red Bull. His boasts and attempted deals never amounted to anything concrete, forcing him to step down as chairman in 2007, cratering the company’s stock value in the process.
  • Farnsworth was up to his old tricks just a year later with the Purple Beverage Company, which solicited “a slew of celebrity spokespeople to sell the beverage, including Chaka Khan.” The company, not surprisingly, folded in ignominy.
  • Farnsworth tried it all again in 2012 with LTS Nutraceuticals, which attempted to mimic the business models of companies like Amway and Herbalife. The results were predictable: “failure to make required regulatory filings” followed by trading for pennys per share.
  • Furthermore, Farnsworth has been the target of eight different civil suits, most of which revolved around unpaid bills and settlements. For example, he allegedly owes Wells Fargo $76,000.
  • Not to be left out, MoviePass board member and major shareholder Muralikrishna Gadiyaram has had not one but two different companies “kicked off of two stock exchanges and is accused of defrauding investors.”

Farnsworth came to his current position via a digital crime-mapping platform he ran as a private startup. This company, Zone Technologies, merged with the digital firm Helios in July 2016, which “allowed Helios to meet the minimum $2.5 million market cap requirement to remain listed on the NASDAQ exchange.” Farnsworth was named CEO at the start of the following year, and by August 2017 Helios was the new majority owner of MoviePass. That’s when the price drop from $30 a month to $9.95 went into effect. It’s a year later and now they’re being sued by investors and aren’t letting their own customers cancel their accounts.

Anyone with any business sense could see MoviePass probably wasn’t built for the long term; anyone who knew about Farnsworth’s background, however, could have likely guessed this was always going to turn into an utter shitshow. Let the lawsuits begin.

Source: Miami Herald, Gizmodo

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Posted by Kelly Konda

Grew up obsessing over movies and TV shows. Worked in a video store. Minored in film at college because my college didn't offer a film major. Worked in academia for a while. Have been freelance writing and running this blog since 2013.

4 Comments

  1. I’m much more interested in theory and history myself, but I enjoy these business perspectives you frequently offer on the industry. It ties into my interest in the history of film, but I rarely write about the nuts-and-bolts like you do. I couldn’t write these kinds of pieces, but I really enjoy them.

    Reply

    1. Thank you. I frequently struggle with nailing the right balance in terms of content, and when I’ve asked readers for input on what kind of coverage they prefer I’ve learned some like the reviews and retrospectives, others massively prefer the industry analysis and yet others like the variety. It’s hard to try to be both Roger Ebert and Kim Masters at the same time. In truth, I think I’m better at the nuts & bolts and history stuff than the actual reviewing, which is why whenever my friend Julianne chooses to write something for the site it’s almost always a review. It comes more naturally to her. But the more you bury yourself in the biz side of the “film biz” the easier it becomes to lose track of what the heck you got into this for in the first place, which is to simply talk to people about movies. So, sometimes I just want to watch an old Anthony Hopkins movie like Magic and ask, “Have you guys seen this? It’s pretty good.”

      Incidentally, back to the topic at hand, I just signed up for AMC’s A-List. I’ve been a MoviePass subscriber going back to the December that The Big Short came out, but the dang service is barely even usable anymore. Now I get to find out if they’ll even let me cancel considering the way they’ve been auto-renewing those members who already canceled.

      Reply

  2. Well, at least they can make a movie about it…..

    Reply

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